As we approach the end of a year, it is perfectly natural to look back on the year behind us. Some people make lists of the best or worst things, such as movies and songs. This year, I would like to look back on the most ridiculous occurrence in Oklahoma government. Gene Stipe, the former state senator from McAlester and embodiment of everything that has held Oklahoma back in the past, was allowed to receive his state legislator’s pension.
I do not wish to dissect the judicial decisions that led to this point. It would be fruitless, as the Oklahoma Supreme Court surely will not revisit one of their rulings solely to the scribbling of a local columnist. Likewise, with regard to the court, they very well may have believed they were applying the law as it is currently written. What I wish to examine is the nature of Stipe-ism.
The Stipe school of politics, the product of a certain subset of Oklahoma Democratic Party politicians, has been the No. 1 factor in hindering Oklahoma’s competitiveness on the national and global stage. (Before I go any further, let me point out, for the record, that the Republicans are by no means pure as the driven snow. Anywhere one-party rule predominates ” think Alaska ” the same concept applies, interrupted only by reform movements from within.) The detrimental effects can be found in limbs of the same root: complacency and insider dealing.
The fact that complacency is the root of so many political evils is not immediately apparent. However, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that complacency has led to our historical tendency to trail behind the rest of the country in everything from educational achievement to economic performance. The acceptance of “good enough” nips reform in the bud and thwarts those who advocate for excellence. Cynical politicians for far too long have masked their complacency as a form of state patriotism. They say that those who speak out for improving Oklahoma are guilty of badmouthing the state. This nonsensical thinking was behind the bulk of attacks on Frank Keating, who fought relentlessly for eight years against the forces of complacency.
But what does all this have to do with corruption and inside dealing? Look at it this way: If the pie is only going to get so big, then all that is left to do is get yours and the devil take the hindmost. From the judicial bribes of decades ago, to the county commissioner scandals of more recent days, all the way to the downfall of Stipe himself, the story has remained the same. Individuals entrusted with power in order to benefit the people have instead used it to help themselves and their cronies.
The most important question to ask any public official is that of motivation. If you can discover the honest answer of why a person would jump through all the hoops, grand and petty, in public life today, then you will be halfway to discerning the difference between a Stipe and a reformer.
In the end, if Stipe, who abused his power deliberately ” not through mere sloppiness ” to subvert the democratic process in order to benefit himself and his friends, did not violate his oath of office, then we need a new oath.
Reese is an attorney who lives in Oklahoma City with his wife and sons.